Ferry firms feel the pinch

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Cross-channel ferry companies are reporting a significant loss of business as a result of the French road blockades. A spokesman for P & O European Ferries said bookings were running at the same level as last year: 'People still want to go - they have not been put off,' he said. However, until this month cross-Channel traffic was showing increases of up to 15 per cent on last year's levels: the fact that business is now holding at last year's figures represents a significant loss for the ferry companies.

With the main holiday season due to start in two weeks, companies are worried that the well- publicised problems of the blockades may discourage families from making last-minute bookings. The trend towards late bookings in the holiday business means that over the next few weeks the ferry companies would have expected to receive hundreds of thousands of bookings for travel in August, the ferry companies' busiest month. Fear of being stranded on a French autoroute - and reports about shortages of petrol and hypermarkets running out of fresh food - will certainly persuade many potential travellers to abandon holiday plans.

The threat of a serious downturn is particularly bad news for the ferry companies, which this year have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in new ferries to develop business before the opening of the Channel Tunnel.

Ferry companies and motoring associations are encouraging people to proceed with motoring holidays to France but they are being advised to take precautions.

AA Roadwatch says motorists heading for France while the crisis continues should:

Stick to D roads, which are the French equivalent of B roads.

Take a good up-to-date map to help find alternative routes.

Pack plenty of food and drink and games for children in case they are stranded.

Take extra French cash - changing travellers' cheques off main routes may be difficult.

Fill up with petrol whenever possible - supplies in some areas are limited and many filling-stations are shut. A spokesman warned that motorists were not allowed to carry extra fuel on ferries.

The AA at Boulogne said lorry drivers had lifted their blockades at Calais, Le Havre, Boulogne and Caen but that 'it is not yet clear exactly what is happening.

'The ferry terminals and the towns are now clear but some of the access roads round the towns are still disrupted,' Olivier Loiseau, an AA operations controller, said. 'Other Channel ports are clear.'